Commentary

Saunders: Wrong to call 911 for something trivial - and wrong to charge a 16-year-old for that

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2014 

Really, Barn. Was that necessary?

Any fan of “The Andy Griffith Show” – and we should be leery of anyone who isn’t a fan – has likely heard an exasperated Sheriff Taylor ask that question of his over-officious, oft-befuddled deputy Barney Fife after he’d done something unnecessary.

Like what, you ask? Like locking up a teenager for calling 911 because her mother grounded her and took away her cell phone.

Only thing is, that incident didn’t occur in an imaginary North Carolina town on a sitcom from the 1960s, but in a real-life North Carolina town from 2014. Smithfield police made the arrest this week.

The 16-year-old girl – I won’t use her name, since she’s already received more negative attention than her misdeed merited – indubitably deserved disciplinary action for dialing 911 after her mother took her iPhone away. Who knows? Maybe while the petulant teen was whining about her confiscated phone, asking the cops to come and take her away, someone with a real emergency trying to reach the operator was delayed in getting through.

Laughingstock, again

A friend in New York, after reading the story, called to ask “what’s crackin’ in North Cacky Lacky?”

One’s first thought upon hearing that news of the unnecessary arrest had made it outside the state was “Oy. We’re fixing to be the laughingstock of the nation again.” Over the past few years, I’ve heard from many people who said they moved to North Carolina because they thought the state was progressive politically and socially.

Without exception, they all said they now feel otherwise.

On second thought, though, we could use the arrest and incarceration of a 16-year-old girl for dialing 911 – one time! – as a selling point to attract even more people and industry to the area.

Think about it. Would you rather move your business to a state that values education and pays its teachers commensurate to their worth – or would you prefer a state where the governor rejects billions for Medicaid, cuts unemployment insurance out of seeming spite and crime is apparently so uncommon that a thoughtless call to 911 rates an arrest?

If you’re looking for the latter, boy, do we have a state for you.

There are times when the egregious abuse of the emergency phone system warrants an arrest or mental evaluation, especially when offenders are adults whose brains have, theoretically at least, matured to the point that they know they’re wrong.

• That 52-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla., woman who dialed 911 because she was feeling lascivious and wanted a good-looking cop to come and put in some “extra work”?

• That Oregon man who called to find out where to buy some good weed?

• That 37-year-old woman from Gastonia – YIKES! Us again – who last month called 911 twice because the Subway sandwich shop put the wrong sauce on her flatbread pizza?

More effective methods

All of them needed to be seen by a magistrate. Or by a shrink. A 16-year-old girl who acts impetuously while arguing with her mother needs a lot of things, but an overnight stay in jail isn’t one of them.

You don’t have to possess Solomonic wisdom to know that there were more effective punishments than shaming that child for a moment of teenage impetuosity. Smithfield Police Chief Michael Scott said the arrest was a Class III misdemeanor, “the lowest class.”

That means she may be able to have her record expunged at some point. She’ll never be able to have the report of it expunged from the Internet, though. Even if she grows up to discover the cure for some dread disease, she’ll still be saddled into perpetuity with the infamy that comes from having her story and mugshot online. Want to bet that someday she’ll hear “Grandma, is that you?” from an Internet-cruising grandkid?

Before you say – as some of you will – “She should’ve thought of that before she dialed nine hundred and ’leven,” ask yourself this: Would you have been so circumspect at 16?

I asked Chief Scott if abuse of the 911 system was a big problem there. “It’s no more of a problem here than anywhere else,” he said, “but any time you abuse the system it’s a problem.”

He confirmed that the girl called only once and said that the mother “supported the officer” who arrested her daughter. If she did, she’s apparently having second thoughts about it now.

“I wasn’t onboard” with the severity of the punishment, Mom said, adding that she thought police were merely taking her daughter away to cool off because of their conflict.

Mom was, of course, understandably irate and worried that the national attention might push her daughter “over the edge. ... She’s being bullied at school and she hasn’t even been convicted of anything. They’ve already tarnished her name.” She said her daughter is an honor roll student and band member.

Since the child is obviously attached to the device, a fitting private punishment would have been no cell phone use for six months. How about making her work at the 911 call center to learn what real emergencies are, or volunteer at a battered women’s shelter so she can see whose true emergency calls she may be selfishly pre-empting by tying up the phone system?

All of those would have been better – and would have better served society – than charging a 16-year-old girl.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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